Toward the end of 1922, at the home of the poet Harold Monro, Ford Madox Ford began the work that became a modern classic, Parade’s End. In this house at Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, a Mediterranean peninsula between Nice and Monaco, Ford started to mull over a major project about the First World War. Writing began in earnest early the following year, and the first volume, Some Do Not . . . , was published in 1924. In 1928 appeared the fourth and final book in the series, The Last Post. A bolder undertaking than Ford’s other famous novel, The Good Soldier (1915), this tetralogy was heralded as one of the best fictional treatments to come out of the cataclysm of 1914–18. The critic and novelist Malcolm Bradbury calls it “the greatest modern war novel from a British writer.”

Like other modernist works of the era, Parade’s End takes up as themes disillusionment with the past and the turn away from old authorities and enfeebled traditions toward a new, though not necessarily better, future. But unlike other novels in the Great War canon, such as Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1928) and Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929), Parade’s End goes beyond dismay at the origins, pursuit, and effects of the war to incorporate a leitmotif of ethical inquiry, even—in the face of this pervasive sense of the spent value of all established norms and institutions—of moral affirmation. The unfolding of this persistent theme makes Parade’s End oddly pertinent to our own time of ethical erosion.

Parade’s End takes up as themes disillusionment with the past and the turn away from old authorities and enfeebled traditions toward a new, though not necessarily better, future.

The main character, Christopher Tietjens, is a source of bafflement to most readers. Critics have tended to see him as either an unbelievably patient Anglican saint modeled on Christ himself or a good Tory whose principles, based on a code of chivalry, are all jettisoned by narrative’s end, when Tietjens has to renounce his feudal outlook and accommodate himself to post-war England, a different world that will host “no more parades.” Neither reading is as helpful as it might seem, however, for neither goes to the heart of the matter.

This tetralogy is closer to a Bildungsroman. Tietjens has principles all along, and he makes his decisions—some good, some not-so-good—in light of them. In the second book, No More Parades (1925), he declares that he has always taken his “public school’s ethical system seriously. I am really . . . the English public schoolboy. That’s an eighteenth-century product.” But he comes to a greater maturity by the end of the third novel, A Man Could Stand Up— (1926), particularly in consequence of his service in the British Army; he attains his majority, as it were.

What distinguishes the later Tietjens from the earlier is a sense of authenticity, all the way down to his boots. For many of us, the French existentialists, especially Jean-Paul Sartre, have given “authenticity” a bad name. For them no moral standards exist; if there are any norms at all, they are only freedom and authenticity. Existence precedes essence: you are free to define yourself as you will. To thine own self—fashioned according to your completely free choice in the moment—be true: a lodestar for many in the 1960s and ever since.

Thoroughly different, however, is authenticity in relation to an ethical code. Like the paidagogos, the trusted house slave or child-guardian in ancient Greece and Rome, the schoolboy code Christopher lived by—starting with prohibitions against lying, cheating, and stealing—had its time and place. A sound moral compass, it served him well, providing guidance as he grew up and moved into widening circles of association and responsibility. Not to be gainsaid are the sense of confidence that comes from self-discipline and the reputation for reliable judgment that accrues to a person in whose character such virtues have found a secure place.

Eventually, however, in the life of a young man or young woman, the law—Tietjens’s public-school moral code—must be reevaluated, modified, and made one’s own, not imposed heteronomously from without and rigidly conformed to. Tietjens says in No More Parades that “other men get over their schooling. I never have. I remain adolescent.” But in the next book he does mature; he stands up and becomes fully his own person—more, not less, a man of principle.

The younger son of a rich Yorkshire landowner, Christopher Tietjens views himself as a Tory of “an extinct type.” In the war sections of the books, his soldiers are said to be commanded by “the last surviving Tory.” Thus he is conservative, treasuring place and honoring the past, not only responsive to his duties but also faithful to the norms that attend his position. He is accurately described by his wife Sylvia as “an eighteenth-century figure of the Dr. Johnson type.” He knows horses and old furniture; he can assess the value of an antique “purely by instinct: by taking a glance at a thing and chancing its price.” He cherishes his native land “for the run of its hills, the shape of its elm trees and the way the heather, running uphill to the skyline, meets the blue of the heavens.”

Moreover, Tietjens is a Christian gentleman who aspires to Anglican sainthood. Recalling the spire of George Herbert’s church in Bemerton, near Salisbury, he wishes for a life like that devoted priest’s, affirming that “one ought to be a seventeenth-century parson at the time of the renaissance of Anglican saintliness.”

His ethics are deontological, rooted in a traditional code of honor, not modern and utilitarian. His elder brother, Mark, calls him “one of the best. A fellow who never told a lie or did a dishonourable thing in his life.” Principles, Christopher Tietjens observes, are necessary if one is to find one’s moral way in life. They “are like a skeleton map of a country—you know whether you’re going east or north.” He consistently strives to act in accordance with these principles, no matter what the cost to his own person, refusing—to cite a major example—to divorce his faithless wife, because he will not subject her to the disgrace such proceedings would entail.

“The war had made a man of him! It had coarsened him and hardened him.”

Later on, however, in A Man Could Stand Up—, he thinks of Valentine Wannop, the suffragette, girls’ school gym instructor, and his equal in character and intelligence—the woman he loves—and declares against a George Herbert kind of life: “Not Bemerton. A country parsonage was not for him. So he wouldn’t take orders!” A bit further on, he renounces his ancestral home, Groby: “Tietjens was never going to live at Groby. No more feudal atmosphere!” And finally, toward the end of this third book in the series (the volume which is the climax of the Tietjens story), we read: “The war had made a man of him! It had coarsened him and hardened him.”

What reshapes him? Certainly he is powerfully stirred by Miss Wannop, but he would not be able to respond to this multilayered attraction were it not for other developments in his personal history. Tietjens’s transformation is indicated in a number of episodes, by way of an accumulation of details, through what Ford called a progression d’effet.

In one of these scenes we perceive what Captain Tietjens has to put up with in his army posting. Confronting him and demanding answers is General Lord Edward Campion VC, his commanding general and also his godfather, an old friend of the family whose close ties do not prevent his coveting Tietjens’s lovely wife. Tietjens has just been blown up in the air by the concussion of a nearby high-explosive artillery shell and then hauled out of the mud that covered him after he returned to ground. “Who are you?” Campion asks his godson. “Where the devil is the officer commanding this Battalion?” Irritated—“in a hell of a temper”—the general exclaims: “You’re disgustingly dirty. Like a blackamoor. I suppose you’ve an explanation.”

It’s a terrific vignette, comprising comedy, horror, and the sort of moral obliquity Tietjens has had to deal with for all of his married life. He replies: “I am in command of this Battalion, sir. I am Tietjens, second-in-command. Now in command temporarily. I could not be found because I was buried. Temporarily.” Unmollified, Campion says this battalion was alleged to be the smartest in his unit, but no one has been able to locate Tietjens, and now you come “strolling along with your hands in your pockets!” His attitudinizing scarcely registers with Captain Tietjens, who is more honorable—ethically more in-command—than his commander. Tietjens knows his job, endures calamity, and carries on regardless of opposition from enemy, home front, and higher-ups.

Far more important to him are the opinions of his men. A sergeant, now acting temporary sergeant-major, says to him in A Man Could Stand Up—: “Then a man could stand hup [sic] on an ’ill. . . . You really mean to say, sir, that you think a man will be able to stand up on a bleedin’ ’ill . . .” But Tietjens does not understand what prompts this apparently isolated statement; he’s been preoccupied with his own worries and only gradually realizes he must have been offering assurances to the sergeant-major in order to boost the nco’s morale.

Tietjens asks him: “You’re a Lincolnshire man, aren’t you? You come from a Fen country. What do you want to stand up on a hill for?” The man replies: “Ah, but you do, sir! . . . You want to stand up! Take a look around . . .” He searches for the right analogy. “Like as if you wanted to breathe deep after bein’ in a stoopin’ posture for a long time!” Tietjens tells him, why, he can stand up here, if he’s discreet; he had just done it. But the sergeant-major won’t be satisfied with a narrowly literal reading of the line: “You, sir . . . You’re a law hunto yourself!”

Tietjens receives this judgment as both “considerable shock” and “considerable reward”—the uttermost of each quality that he’s experienced since he first put on an army uniform. He interprets these words as a token of the way in which the men, the “Other Ranks,” regard him. His soldiers are hard to read, a mysterious mass. A commanding officer never can be certain what they are thinking, what they make of him, and of course he cannot ask them.

Tietjens takes the sergeant-major’s statement as a high compliment. The narration, in free indirect discourse, reflects the protagonist’s thoughts: “An acting temporary regimental sergeant-major, without any real knowledge of his job, extemporising, not so long ago a carrier in an eastern county of remarkable flatness does not tell his Acting Commanding Officer that he is a law unto himself without meaning it to be a flattering testimony: a certificate . . . of trustworthiness.”

His men rely on him. Tested at every level, Tietjens meets each problem and carries out his duties. Over time, these challenges and his mastery of them have their effect, and largely for the better. Glimpses of the new man surprise even him. Part of the seigneurial code of honor was to eschew ambition, never to seek higher preferment. But Tietjens becomes aware within himself of “a passionate desire to command that battalion. It was the last thing he would have expected . . .”

Part of the seigneurial code of honor was to eschew ambition, never to seek higher preferment.

He notices other signs of alteration. With the regimental commander he discusses the possibility that tactics in the entire conflict will soon become dramatically more mobile. The colonel replies that it won’t become a war of motion for some time. Tietjens then asks: “Isn’t it rather like a war of motion now, sir?” The significance of this question lies not in its main theme, the subject of whether renewed mobility for one coalition or the other would lead to final victory in 1918, but in the fact that Tietjens has asked it at all: “It was perhaps the first time in his life he had ever asked for information from a superior in rank—with an implicit belief that he would get an exact answer.” Throughout his employment as a brilliant mathematician for the government in Westminster, before he went into the army in 1916, Tietjens was the one answering his masters, who would then go on to misuse his data for their own deceitful ends.

This competence in the profession of arms gives Tietjens a newfound assurance composed of both pride and humility, which is gratifying to him. He’s starting to imagine that he will be able to stand up one day, confined no longer to a stoopin’ posture.

What has Tietjens experienced in the war that brings him to this realization? In his active service, he is in charge of a large base camp near Rouen, from which drafts of men are organized and dispatched to the front. Later, during the spring 1918 German offensive, he is temporarily in command of an infantry battalion of the 9th Glamorganshires. Finally, Campion orders him to guard German prisoners of war behind the lines, although Tietjens hates the role of “gaoler.” He faces hardship, wounding, and the prospect of imminent death, while his worries from home—marriage and family, finances, reputation—never leave him.

His service with the troops, particularly his time in command, results in the growth of his democratic spirit. Ford Madox Ford, who—although a bit old for it—obtained a commission in the Welch Regiment, also left the army with a stronger sense of connection to the ordinary men at the front. Moreover, Tietjens suffers with his men and cannot escape feelings of anguish and of something close to guilt when he believes he has failed them. He turns down the Welsh private O Nine Morgan, a company runner, for compassionate leave to go home because he is certain that if Morgan returns to Wales he will be injured and possibly killed by a prizefighter who is living with the private’s wife. Soon after Tietjens refuses this request, Morgan is killed by an enemy shell.

In another scene at the front, Tietjens rescues a junior officer, Lieutenant Aranjuez, who has been partly buried by an exploded shell. The captain is carrying him back to their own lines when, suddenly, “the boy kicked, screamed, tore himself loose. . . . Well, if he wanted to go!” The subaltern rushes off screaming, holding his hands to his face. Later Tietjens learns that, while he was being carried, Aranjuez was hit by a sniper and lost an eye.

Tietjens’s mind keeps recurring to these men and to his decisions. His compassion is profound. He evinces no sign that, while the war has made a man of him, it has “coarsened” and “hardened” him too. Ford’s narrator is not always reliable.

He faces hardship, wounding, and the prospect of imminent death, while his worries from home—marriage and family, finances, reputation—never leave him.

We learn more about Tietjens’s military reputation by way of Sylvia, whom Christopher married believing—mistakenly, it appears—that she was pregnant with their child; now she strives to undermine him at every turn. Bernard Bergonzi, a critic and student of the war literature, calls her a “beautiful sexual terrorist.” To stir up trouble, she even visits her husband’s camp in France. While there, she detects unmistakable evidence of his devotion to his men and of their appreciation of him, which she construes as a moral and social failing on his part. Possessed of an “indolent and gracious beauty”—and knowing it—she contemplates the situation and concludes that Christopher should be focusing all his attention on her. The narration conveys her inner thoughts: “But to betray her with a battalion. . . . That is against decency, against Nature . . .” And a social crime as well: “And for him, Christopher Tietjens, to come down to the level of the men [she] met here!”

A second lieutenant tells her what she does not want to hear: the captain is a knowledgeable and proficient officer. “There you are, madam. . . . Trust the captain to know everything! . . . I don’t believe there’s a question under the sun you could ask him that he couldn’t answer . . .” Then he adds, to her increasing annoyance, “They say up at the camp . . .” and he starts to recount all the questions from his men Tietjens has capably answered. In torture, Sylvia wonders to herself, “Is this to go on forever?”

While other officers around him are coming unstitched, Tietjens, although beset by betrayals and false dealing on the part of acquaintances and family members who should have had his back, gets on with his job. Lieutenant Cowley tells Sylvia: “You must excuse the captain, ma’am. . . . He had no sleep last night. . . . Largely owing to my fault. . . . I tell you, ma’am, there are few things I would not do for the captain.”

But General Campion, who wants Sylvia for himself, sends Tietjens “up the line,” toward the front and, Tietjens assumes, “certain death.” He survives but, like Ford himself, suffers from shell-shock and amnesia. Another officer who knows both Campion and Tietjens later explains: “The General wanted Sylvia Tiet­jens. So as to get her he had sent Tietjens into the hottest part of the line. But Tietjens had refused to get killed.” Even General Campion eventually concedes that Tietjens deserves a military decoration, but he wouldn’t receive it: decorations were limited in number and ought to be given, as Campion is sure Tietjens would agree, to those for whom it would be professionally more advantageous.

And so after the war Christopher Tietjens gives up Groby, becomes a trader in antique furniture, divorces Sylvia, marries Valentine Wannop, and lives quietly as a smallholder in the West Sussex countryside, working hard to make ends meet. Good for him. He remains a man of principle, and his ethical stance is firmly based on inner conviction. That he is no longer, in the eyes of a diminishing local aristocracy, of the landed gentry is not crucial. His ethics may have shifted from noblesse oblige to bourgeois virtues, but he is no less conscientious in his personal and professional dealings than he was before.

Indeed, something artificial, pretentious, and misaligned always seemed to adhere to Tietjens’s previous occupation, limned in the tetralogy’s well-known opening sentences which describe Tietjens and his colleague Macmaster.

The two young men—they were of the English public official class—sat in the perfectly appointed railway carriage. The leather straps to the windows were of virgin newness; the mirrors beneath the new luggage racks immaculate as if they had reflected very little. . . . Their class administered the world, not merely the newly created Imperial Department of Statistics under Sir Reginald Ingleby.

Tietjens’s transition from civil servant to independent businessman is not a terrible fall.

That Tietjens will witness no more parades is not a matter of undue concern either. In military parlance, “parade” can mean any assembly of troops. Sometimes officers and men gather for a review of marching units. Other times they assemble for religious services, a “church parade.” In a literal sense, then, after the war, Tietjens, no longer in uniform, will face no more parades. But “parade” can also mean an ostentatious display, often incorporating a measure of hypocrisy. Thus, back in the first volume, Some Do Not . . . , the narrator refers to a pair of adulterers, now lawfully married, still carrying on their “parade of circumspection and rightness,” even after their ceremony in the registry office.

“No more parades” does not necessarily signify the end of all things honorable and glorious, therefore. In fact, for Tietjens, “no more parades” could be a blessing. One suspects that there will be less “parade” in his own life; he will be less formal and wooden, humbler, far less priggish, and more accepting of all sorts and conditions of men and women.

Moreover, if “no more parades” does mean no more hope and glory, then who is to blame? This world of old-fashioned values—including, it must be said, class snobbery, assumptions of Anglo-Saxon superiority, and an extreme reticence which assumed far too much in the way of mutual understanding—was under assault well before the war. Ford was concerned with dissembling and moral rot when he was writing The Good Soldier. The Great War did not put paid to duty and responsibility; nor did the great estates ensure their continuance. Consider Christopher’s father and his older brother, Mark: neither squire turns out to be a towering oak of rectitude.

And the British government’s national tax system did as much as any other force to end centuries of tradition, at least as embodied by the gentry and their country houses. In his outstanding history The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century (2014), David Reynolds observes that the aristocracy’s landed wealth was being steadily whittled down by onerous rates. Fiscal policy dictated that estate taxes would soar after the war to 40 percent from 1919 at the same time that the income tax was rising and a new super-tax on the highest incomes hit the owners of old estates. Many great properties were broken up; Groby is a single instance of a larger social transformation. In 1922 the politician Charles F. Masterman (a friend of Ford’s, he’s “Waterhouse” in Parade’s End) declared that taxation “is destroying the whole Feudal system as it extended practically but little changed from 1066.”

Ford would have been sensitive to these changes. He fretted about increasing bureaucracy and statism in England. In his autobiographical Between St. Dennis and St. George: A Sketch of Three Civilizations (1915), one of his contributions to the wartime propaganda efforts at Wellington House, he writes that he is “a pronounced Tory” who has always focused mainly on his art, so he does not know much about public affairs. He knows enough, however, to express “a profound distrust of all legislation,” believing that “what the country needed was a rest from all Acts of Parliament for as long a period as possible.”

Christopher Tietjens is marked out as sui generis, but he stands in for all those who bridle at cheating, mendacity, cruelty, and self-aggrandizement.

In any case, the distinction between the core values of the aristocratic and middle classes can be overdrawn. Large numbers of landed gentry and bourgeois Britons alike, both before and after the war, respected civilized customs and inherited forms of behavior. Appreciating social stability, they were not political or social rebels; they believed in honest conduct and in performing one’s duty in the station to which one has been called. Changes in sexual mores, the artistic avant-garde, and a revolutionary Germany disturbed many—in varying degrees—across both social classes.

Christopher Tietjens is marked out as sui generis, but he stands in for all those who bridle at cheating, mendacity, cruelty, and self-aggrandizement. His mark of distinction is not his ancestral link to Groby but that he is a man of honor, a good person despite his failings, in a post-war world that exhibits a rising skepticism toward old pieties and declining belief in an objective moral order. Within the canonical literature of the Great War, his representation of a conservative alternative is unusual and makes him worth knowing in our own age, a time of moral cynicism and moralistic grandstanding.

Tietjens reminds us that the schoolboy code of honor must be freshly appraised in adulthood, adjusted, and embraced as one’s own, but its underlying standards never grow old. The best schools today will teach and reaffirm the lineaments of integrity, not only the seven cardinal and theological virtues but also the disreputable habits of humility and patience. By such means educators will stand athwart the deadly contemporary drive to endorse teleological justifications of opprobrious acts. Closing in on one hundred years, Parade’s End still appeals.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 3, on page 24
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